When exercise triggers your asthma

Tips and advice to help you keep doing the activities you love, even with asthma

Physical activity – whether that’s playing competitive team sports, walking the dog, or doing some gardening – has amazing health benefits. It beats stress, keeps your heart healthy and cuts your chance of getting diabetes for a start.

The good news is that if your asthma is well managed, you should still be able to enjoy exercise and all the benefits of being active.

There’s even evidence that exercising can help improve your asthma.

Feeling worried about exercising with asthma?

If you have asthma, or your child does, it’s totally understandable that you might feel anxious about exercising.

Around 90% of people with asthma report getting some symptoms when they exercise. If you don’t treat them, these symptoms can trigger asthma attacks.

Working out what’s normal for you

When you do any activity that gets your pulse rate up – from Zumba to taking the stairs instead of the lift at work – it’s totally normal if you:

  • Get flushed
  • Breathe faster and more deeply
  • Get hot and sweaty. 

Asthma warning signs to look out for when you’re exercising:

These types of symptoms aren’t normal. They are a sign that you need to see your GP.

  • Coughing / wheezing
  • Gasping for air / very short of breath / can’t get enough air
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Younger children especially might avoid physical activity.

Signs you’re having an asthma attack and need to get help immediately:

  • Your reliever inhaler doesn’t help
  • Your symptoms are getting worse (cough, breathlessness, wheeze or tight chest)
  • You’re too breathless to speak
  • Your breathing keeps getting faster, instead of slowing down like it normally would after exercise.

 Find out what to do in an asthma attack.

Staying on top of your asthma is the best way to cut your risk of an attack from exercise  

  • Take your preventer inhaler (usually brown) regularly, as prescribed
  • Check with your GP or asthma nurse that you’re using your inhaler correctly
  • Use an up to date written asthma action plan  and keep it where you can see it (on the fridge, for example).
  • Go for regular asthma reviews.

See our expert nurse advice for more tips on managing your asthma.

Other tips for cutting your asthma risk when you exercise:

  • Carry your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you and stop and take it if you get symptoms. There’s no need to take it before exercising.
  • If you’re exercising with someone else, make sure they know you have asthma, and that you have a blue reliever inhaler with you.
  • Warm up and warm down for 10-15 minutes before and after exercising.
  • Check the weather forecast and avoid exercising when it’s too hot, or there’s pollution or pollen around.
  • If your asthma symptoms are interferring with you exercising, ask your GP or nurse to include this on your asthma action plan.

Tips for exercising in cold weather when you have asthma

In colder weather, symptoms are even more likely during exercise, because cold, dry air can irritate your already sensitive airways.

  • One way to avoid this problem is to exercise indoors during the winter months.
  • Or, consider doing less vigorous exercise if you’d like to be outside – go for a power walk instead of a run, for example.
  • Make sure your chest and throat are covered and keep a scarf around your nose – this helps warm up the air, so it’s less likely to set off your symptoms.

Why exercise can set off asthma symptoms or an asthma attack

Scientists think the most likely reason is that when you get your pulse rate up, you tend to breathe faster and through your mouth, meaning the air that’s going into your lungs is colder and drier than normal.

Some people’s lungs react to this change in temperature and humidity, meaning the airways get narrower. This can trigger symptoms like coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. That’s why a lot of our advice is about warming up the air that’s going into your lungs.

What is ‘exercise induced asthma’?

You might have heard the term ‘exercise induced asthma’ to describe asthma symptoms that comes on when you exercise. You might even have been told you have this condition. However, ‘exercise induced asthma’ isn’t really used much now by doctors, because it’s more likely that you just have asthma and that exercise is one of your asthma triggers alongside others like hay fever, dust or colds.

Whether exercise is your only trigger or not, your asthma still needs managing using the tips above in this article.

Occasionally, someone without a diagnosis of asthma might get asthma-like symptoms from exercising, but you’ll still need to see a GP to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Getting treatment for asthma symptoms when you exercise

If you’re getting any symptoms at all, let your GP know.

They may do some tests, like peak flow readings, and might suggest some different medicines to try.

They’ll be aiming to reduce and ultimately get rid of your symptoms, so you can keep doing the activities you enjoy.

 

Last updated June 2018

Next review due June 2020